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This is Chapter 3 of the free online guide “Cruising with Special Diets”.

For personal use only — please do not distribute.

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Chapter 3


All of your preparations have long since been completed, your bags are packed to bursting with way too many clothes and snacks, and you close your front door for the last time before your vacation begins.

Forget anything?

Getting to the Ship

Make sure that you’ve taken into account what you will need before you get to the ship.

If you are flying, make sure you’ve got food in your carry-on to take with you on the plane (if you’ll need it), whether from home or if you know there are things at the airport to purchase. Take into account what might happen if your flight is delayed or cancelled (more likely in the winter, when people like to escape for a quick Caribbean getaway).

If you’re arriving the day before your cruise departs (or earlier), make sure you’ve done your research as to where you’ll be able to eat where you’re staying. Particularly if you’ve had a delay and/or a long trip, there’s a good chance you’ll be tired and frustrated, and less keen on trying to figure out where to eat safely at that point. Trust me, you’ll be happier if you’ve planned ahead.

And if your plans are, umm, changed on you? Be prepared.

My true travel horror story, flying from Edmonton to Copenhagen (via London) to board a cruise. Here’s what happened:

  1. Plane has mechanical problems two hours after leaving Edmonton, and is diverted to Toronto.
  2. Passengers told to line up, but evident soon enough that nobody will be there to help until morning (several hours later).
  3. Told by airline staff they’ve got us booked on a flight that will still let us catch our ship, though miss our planned day in Copenhagen.
  4. Fly to London, where on arrival we’re told by gate agent we’re not booked on any flight, but come back tomorrow morning and they’ll see.
  5. Call cruise-line-owned company that arranged the air, who are of zero help, despite earlier promises to the contrary.
  6. Find someone from a codeshare airline who does some digging and finds we’re actually booked on a flight to Copenhagen via Oslo tomorrow—two hours before we were told to come back.
  7. Cab to crappy airport hotel. Briefly crash. Cab back to airport early morning.
  8. Fly to Oslo. Almost stay in Oslo airport because it is so peaceful and soothing, and all the staff are friendly and helpful.
  9. Get to Copenhagen two hours before ship due to leave.
  10. Get into fight with cruise agent at airport about transfers to the ship, the one thing the cruise-line-owned company that handled air promised to arrange. Pay extra for that, and get to ship barely on time.

I was about ready to explode—from frustration, not from something I’d eaten. Luckily we had brought enough food with us, supplemented with things we knew we could get at airports like fresh fruit, to handle this sort of mess. An optimist might point out that at least this way we didn’t need to worry about finding a place to eat in Copenhagen. I probably would not share that optimistic outlook.

Other than a few choice words to the cruise agent at the Copenhagen airport, an early start to my bar tab when first on board, and numerous passengers having to hear this story, no damage done. But be prepared.

Getting Onboard

If you’ve never been on a contemporary ocean cruise before, arriving at the cruise terminal will give you your first appreciation of how massive the ships are, and how many people they hold. (When we took my wife’s parents on their first cruise, their idea was to just meet up at the cruise terminal and they’d “find us there”. We came up with a better plan.)

On arriving at the cruise terminal, you’ll more likely than not spend about five minutes registering and getting your room key/charge card, and somewhere between 15 minutes and several hours sitting around in a massive, uncomfortable concrete waiting area (hint: don’t show up before the check-in time printed in your cruise documents). Make sure to bring food and drink for that too.

When you finally do get onboard, usually late afternoon, you’ll find that the buffet area is up and running, and all the passengers who have had nothing to eat or drink for hours will quickly head that way, and dive in head first.

Do not take part in that initial feeding frenzy. You’ve got more important things to deal with.

Meet the Maître d’

Your first job when you get onboard (yes, okay, you can go to the bathroom…) is to meet with the Maître d’. This is one of the most important steps you’ll take to ensure the best experience onboard when it comes to your special diet.

On a cruise ship, like at a restaurant, a Maître d’ (there may be more than one) is in charge of the rest of the service staff (waiters, etc., the “front of the house”) in the dining room and elsewhere. They provide direction to those under them, handle problems that escalate upwards, and will generally handle troubleshooting non-trivial problems with the executive chef and their team (“back of the house”).

To put it simply, they are likely to be your most important allies.

On the first day, before the ship departs, a Maître d’ (or possibly, some other senior service staff) should be available at a certain time and place to help with dining issues. Often this is either the main dining room or one of the lounge areas. Check with one of the hospitality staff who greet you when you first come onboard to find out where and when.

Most people that go to see the Maître d’ at this point are there to change their dining arrangements, e.g. to move from late to early dining. But they are also there to help with any special dietary needs that passengers have.

You will find out first of all, that only about half of the information that you or your travel agent communicated to the cruise line ahead of time about your dietary needs was passed on to the ship, and of that, probably half of it was wrong. I have no idea why this happens, but it’s happened on every cruise we’ve done, across multiple cruise lines, and no matter whether I send it myself, or my extremely diligent travel agent does. Other people I’ve talked to say the same thing.

So you’ll need to explain it all from the beginning, including exactly what you can and cannot eat, and the consequences of mistakes. Don’t assume anything, and make sure that what you explain is fully understood.

The chapter on “Working with Staff” will deal with this in greater detail, but it is very important to not only be polite and gracious, but extremely accurate in your communications at this point, which may involve repeating certain things several times or correcting the Maître d’. Be prepared to make sure they have the information they and their staff need.

The Maître d’ will explain the procedures for meals, which venues onboard may present particular challenges, give you an idea what products are available onboard that you can ask for, and offer other tips to help you out. If you have questions, make sure to ask.

Previous: Planning your Cruise   |   Contents   |   Next: Main Dining Room

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